Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Was Rock Island the “Andersonville of the North”? Um, No.

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 24, 2014

Over at The Historic Struggle, Rob Baker notes that today is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners at Camp Sumter, better known today as Andersonville. Camp Sumter is the most infamous of all prisoner of war camps on either side during the Civil War.

One thing that is sometimes heard is that Rock Island was “the Andersonville of the North.” That assertion is something that interested me personally, since once of my relatives spent almost eighteen months there in 1864-65, a period that includes almost all of Rock Island’s time as a PoW camp. It was a terrible experience, made worse by the vindictiveness of Union authorities who ordered a reduction in rations in retaliation for the treatment of Union PoWs in the Confederacy, specifically at Camp Sumter.

But was Rock Island objectively as bad as Andersonville? I recently watched a documentary, The Rock Island Civil War Prison: Andersonville of the North? (available for purchase here, or streaming here), that laid out some of the data. The documentary is pretty good, although it has an “unfinished” or “almost there” feel to it; there were several subjects barely touched upon that would justify its expansion to a full hour, instead of just 30 minutes. Nevertheless, it’s worth your time if you have an interest in CW prisons.

The documentary specifically challenges the claim that Rock Island was the “Andersonville of the North.” Taking a lead from that, I looked up some detailed numbers, broken out by month, that show the actual rate of deaths among the prisoners at the two camps, by month. Numbers for Rock Island are available for its entire existence from its opening in late 1863; Andersonville opened a few months later, and most of the prisoners were evacuated from the site in the fall of 1864. Although Andersonville remained in operation until May 1865, the vast majority of deaths among its prisoners occurred between February and November 1864. Death rates are calculated by comparing the number of fatalities with the prisoner population for each month:


Click the little one to get a big one. You can download a spreadsheet of the numbers here. Rock Island data is from the Appendix of Otis Bryan England’s A Short History of the Rock Island Prison Barracks (Revised Edition) (Rock Island, Illinois: Historical Office, U.S. Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command, 1985). Andersonville data is from p. 321 of John McElroy’s Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons (Toledo: D. R. Locke, 1879).

Of course, there’s a simpler way to look at this: more men died at Andersonville than were imprisoned at Rock Island during its entire time as a Civil War prison camp.

So where did this “Andersonville of the North” nonsense come from? The phrase doesn’t show up until the 1940s, and I suspect that, like so many other cherished themes about the war, it originated with Margaret Mitchell, who had Ashley Wilkes survive imprisonment at Rock Island. In Gone with the Wind, Chapter 16, she wrote:


Ashley was not dead! He had been wounded and taken prisoner, and the records showed that he was at Rock Island, a prison camp in Illinois. In their first joy, they could think of nothing except that he was alive. But, when calmness began to return, they looked at one another and said ‘Rock Island!’ in the same voice they would have said ‘In Hell!’ For even as Andersonville was a name that stank in the North, so was Rock Island one to bring terror to the heart of any Southerner who had relatives imprisoned there.​


No question, Rock Island was a bad place to be, with much unnecessary suffering. But it was not the horrific place Andersonville was, by any objective measure. Mitchell’s plot also underscores her shoddy research in this area: Rock Island was a camp for enlisted men only, and Ashley Wilkes was an officer.






This is My Rifle; This is My Gun. . . .

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on January 22, 2011

I’m in the middle of Benton McAdams’ Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison. It’s a good read, and reinforces what I’ve long understood: there’s nothing funny about Civil War military prisons, North or South.

But I did laugh out loud at this passage, describing the tenure of one of the Union units assigned as guards at Rock Island, the 133rd Illinois. The 133rd was a regiment of “hundred dazers,” men who’d enlisted for a short, 100-day term, had little training, and still less interest in becoming professional soldiers. An inordinate proportion of them were teenagers, which compounded the discipline problems within the regiment. Here, after discussing the very real, and very serious, problem of guards from the 133rd firing into the prison compound with little (or often no) provocation, McAdams continues:

When no other targets presented themselves, the soldiers in the 133rd shot each other. William Sutton accidentally shot off two of his own fingers. He was luckier than George Lowe. While going on guard one morning, one of the men being relieved engaged in a bit of horseplay, bringing up his musket and making as if to attack his relief. Unfortunately, the hammer of his weapon caught on the strap of his cartridge box, cocking the weapon, and when the man untangled it the musket discharged, killing Lowe. In light of these activities, it had been wise of [Commissary General of Prisoners William] Hoffman to deny [Camp Commandant Colonel Adolphus ] Johnson artillery.

The men had other bad habits as well. One of them was losing their equipment. The regimental files show a phenomenal number of pay stoppages for lost haversacks, gun tools, canteens, and other equipment. To replace at least some of this equipment the men turned to theft, raiding the hospital for whatever they needed. Colonel Phillips despaired of apprehending the offenders because, as he told Surgeon Watson, “of the difficulty which generally attends the ferreting-out of the parties perpetrating these depredations.” Phillips also tried to ferret out the men stealing commissary, stores and selling them to citizens, but he could conclude only that it must be enlisted men, not officers, and they were probably not aware it was illegal.

Women were another hobby of the hundred dazers. Although Johnson had ordered all laundresses to live in Laundressville, a set of buildings erected especially for them, at least some of the 133rd’s women moved into the men’s quarters with them, prompting an order sending the women to their proper place. Shortly after being deprived of the women’s company, Corporal George Brown was reduced to the ranks for “committing an offense calculated to bring infamy and disrepute upon the command.” Corporal Francis Woodcock was also reduced, not for masturbating, but for persuading another man “through misrepresentation to engage in an unlawful act which would and did result in pollution, disease, and misery.”

What a bunch of fools. But pity the unfortunate descendant of Corporal Woodcock, hot on the genealogy trail, jumping at the discovery of his or her ancestor’s name in McAdams’ index. . . .